Wary students shun maths career

January 17, 2003

The severe shortage of mathematics teachers could be linked to the way undergraduates are taught at university, a study has found.

Researchers from Leeds University and King's College London followed more than 200 students through pure maths degrees at two universities over three years. They concluded that reluctance to consider teaching as a career was largely the result of passive learning.

A report published last week says that tens of thousands of schoolchildren are being taught maths by unqualified teachers. Employers and teachers warned that Britain was heading for an economic disaster as the pool of mathematics graduates and potential maths teachers dried up.

Although the teaching profession suffered because of poor pay, low status and poor classroom discipline, students cited other factors that deterred them from taking up teaching. Fear of being "caught out" and not being able to understand or explain complex ideas were common concerns.

In a paper delivered at the Open University last week, the researchers said that the students were not confident of their abilities in maths.

"Imagine being in a position of a schoolteacher and not understanding, or making a mistake, or not being able to answer a pupil's question. It is just not what they want to expose themselves to - especially for poor pay, limited prospects and stress."

Co-author Sheila Macrae of King's College said that the researchers concluded that undergraduate mathematical training was incompatible with the demands for social interaction that school teaching required.

"Maths is different from other academic subjects because in the lecture theatre there is often very little room for opinion or interaction with lecturers, particularly in a traditional university. Students find it difficult to 'own' knowledge and do not have the confidence to discuss ideas," she said.

Three out of 116 single honours mathematics undergraduates intended to teach straight after graduating. The research was funded by the Economics and Social Research Council.

* The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has published revised criteria for mathematics AS and A levels following a massive drop in the number of candidates taking the subject this year. The syllabus introduced in 2000 was considered too weighty.

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